Reviews | We go Miss Greed and Cynicism
It’s 2023. What will the new year bring? The answer, of course, is that we don’t know. There are quite a few of what Donald Rumsfeld (remember him?) called “known unknowns” – for example, no one really knows how hard it will be to bring inflation down or whether the economy America will experience a recession. There are also unknown unknowns: will we see another shock like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
But I think I can make a safe prediction on the American political scene: we’re going to spend much of 2023 feeling nostalgic for the good old days of greed and cynicism.
As late as 2015, or so I and many others thought, we had a pretty good idea of how American politics worked. It wasn’t pretty, but it seemed understandable.
On one side we had the democrats, who were and still are essentially what people in other advanced countries call social democrats (which is not at all the same as what most people call socialism). In other words, they promote a fairly strong social safety net, backed by relatively high taxes on the wealthy. They have shifted somewhat to the left over the years, mainly because the gradual exit of the few remaining conservative Democrats has made the party’s social democratic orientation more consistent. But by international standards, Democrats are, at most, vaguely center-left.
On the other side, we had the Republicans, whose overriding goal was to keep taxes low and social programs small. Many proponents of this program did so in the sincere belief that it would be better for everyone – that high taxes reduce incentives to create jobs and increase productivity, as do overly generous social benefits. But the bulk of the GOP’s financial support (not to mention the penumbra of think tanks, foundations, and lobby groups that promoted its ideology) came from billionaires who wanted to preserve and grow their wealth.
To be clear, I am not saying that the Democrats were pure idealists. The special interest money was paid to both parties. But of the two, the Republicans were much more obviously the ones making the rich richer.
The problem for the Republicans was that their economic program was inherently unpopular. Voters constantly tell pollsters that corporations and the wealthy pay too little tax; policies that help the poor and the middle class have broad public support. How, then, could the GOP win an election?
The answer, most famously described in Thomas Frank’s 2004 book “What’s the Matter With Kansas?”, was to win over working-class white voters by appealing to them on cultural issues. His book drew widespread criticism from political scientists, in part because it downplayed white racial antagonism, but the overall picture still seems correct.
As Frank described it, however, the culture war was fundamentally wrong – a cynical ploy to win elections, ignored once the votes were counted. “Reactionary leaders may talk about Christ,” he wrote, “but they walk in groups. … Abortion is never stopped. Positive action is never abolished. The culture industry is never forced to clean up.”
These days, it feels strange — even a bit like a golden age — as many American women lose their reproductive rights, as schools come under pressure to stop teaching students about slavery and racism, for even powerful corporations are criticized for being over-woke. The culture war is no longer just a posturing of politicians primarily interested in cutting taxes on the rich; many elected Republicans are now real fanatics.
Like I said, you can almost feel the nostalgia for the good old days of greed and cynicism.
Curiously, the culture war has become real at a time when Americans are more socially liberal than ever. George W. Bush won the 2004 election thanks in part to a backlash against same-sex marriage. (True to form, he followed up his victory by proclaiming that he had a mandate to… privatize Social Security.) But these days, Americans accept the idea of same-sex marriages almost three to one.
And the disconnect between a socially illiberal GOP and an increasingly tolerant public is certainly one reason why the widely predicted medium-term red wave has so far fallen short of expectations.
Yet despite a lackluster performance in what should have been a very good year for the outparty, given precedent, Republicans will narrowly control the House. And that means the inmates will run half the asylum.
To be sure, not all members of the new House Republican caucus are bigoted conspiracy theorists. But those who aren’t are clearly terrified and submissive to those who are. Kevin McCarthy may muster the votes to become president, but even if he does, the real power will obviously rest in the hands of people like Marjorie Taylor Greene.
And what I don’t understand is how the US government is going to operate. President Barack Obama faced an extremist and radicalized House GOP, but even the Tea Partiers had concrete political demands that could, to some degree, be appeased. How do you deal with people who believe, more or less, that the 2020 election was stolen by a vast conspiracy of pedophiles?
I don’t know the answer, but the outlook doesn’t look good.